Anyone who's honest with themselves and has been in the horse business for very long can look back and count quite a few mistakes. It's the old "if I knew then what I know now" thing. Honest mistakes are OK. Everybody makes them, so don't beat yourself up too much about the things you do wrong. The important thing is to learn from your mistakes.
Plute was a very smart horse. He was a short, muscular mahogany bay with a dished face, chipmunk cheeks, tiny ears and a big, wise eye. He'd been trained by Dale Wilkinson and had gone on to become a winning cutting horse. Then his owner sort of semi-retired Plute and turned him over to his kids to ride.
One day after a clinic I did for the Erie Hunt and Saddle Club, Plute's owner approached me and commented that he liked my way with horses. He told me he had a good cutting horse that had gotten spoiled by his kids so he wouldn't canter anymore. The horse was a Poco Bueno son, he said, whose sister was winning lots so he wanted me to get the horse loping good for a sale that was coming up. What he didn't tell me was the reason the kids weren't cantering him anymore was that Plute wanted to buck into the canter. If you didn't let him buck, he wouldn't canter.
I told Plute's owner I didn't know anything about cutting horses but he said that was no problem. He'd arrange for me to take Plute to Dale's so I could learn all about cutting horses. So I hauled Plute to Dale's place feeling pretty good about myself. Plute's owner said I was good, I was holding an Arabian judge's card and I figured I had a bigger business than Dale's. In my mind at the time, all that made me a big dog.
Dale, on the other hand, saw a kid who needed a lesson and figured Plute was the one to give it to him. He sent me into a herd of cattle on the horse and when I asked Plute to canter, all I can say is that I survived. Ole Plute sent me up in the air and when I came back down, I was behind the saddle. He bucked again and I wound up in front. Somehow I managed to stay on board but it wasn't a pretty ride.
While I was there, Dale asked me what my program was. It took me awhile to figure out what he meant. At that point in my career I was pretty much doing things as they came up. I hadn't defined a series of training steps that would get me to a particular goal.
If I had a program at all at that point , I guess you could've called it "spang" training. That means you surprise the horse and the horse reacts and spangs back or sidewise or wherever. Then you know the horse is paying attention to you. And I thought if you knew how to punish a horse when it didn't behave the way you wanted, you were a good trainer.
Now if Plute had been a horse that was flighty, or tried to fight me, or sulked, or tried to get even or had any other kind of dramatic reaction, I probably wouldn't have learned as much from him as I did. Plute refused to spang. He'd just quit, put his head up in the air, roll that big eye and wait til I was done fussing. Gradually he taught me that a whole lot of fuss doesn't really mean much unless you know how to shape it. And then he taught me that a whole lot of fuss wasn't really very respectful of the horse. And it finally dawned on me that respectful got you a whole lot farther than spang.
I came to respect Plute as I might respect an older man as a mentor. I guess you could say we did some male bonding and became real buddies. He got me started on the program we now call heeding here at Meredith Manor. Heeding is about constantly reading the horse's emotions and controlling or responding to those emotions in a way that changes and shapes what the horse feels. Respect and compassion for horses is necessary to train them but it's not enough to train them. Heeding can take you from compassion to connection. Then you have to use that connection to create shapes that the horse can feel. Create the feel in the horse of any number of shapes you want him to take and now you have a trained horse.
We can all look back with regret at things we did when we first started working with horses. But if the horses can forgive us, we should be able to forgive ourselves, too, and move on. Just pay attention to what works, learn from your mistakes, count your horses as teachers and keep improving your program.
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Updated: October 2005.